Researchers’ recipe for cutting restaurant food waste
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Food waste is a mirror that reflects back at us the failures of our societies and industries. Every year, billions of tons of food are wasted, while food insecurity remains a global problem. Beyond surplus and absence, it contributes to worsening emissions. But recent research offers insights that could help tackle the problem.
The UN estimates that food loss and waste are responsible for approximately 7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Loss and waste is ubiquitous in the value chain, from farm to fork. Most is the result of natural hazards and human action, negligence or lack of awareness.
Despite technological and organisational advances in agriculture, processing and consumption, the US alone produced 91mn tons of surplus food in 2021: about 38 per cent of its total $444bn food supply or 2 per cent of GDP. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that close to 45 per cent of landfill refuse is food waste and packaging.
A recent study in Switzerland showed that almost 60 per cent of climate impacts of food waste are caused by households and food services, while production, processing and distribution account for the remainder.
Commercial food services is a sizeable sector that includes restaurants from full-service to fast food, event catering and other activities. It is in a unique position to address the issue, but only recently has waste been the subject of scientific studies. So far, most have quantified food waste, with less emphasis on ways to cut it. We have pinpointed four practices: monitoring to identify and quantify sources of waste; redistribution of surplus via food banks and other organisations; source reduction strategies; and composting and reusing waste to generate revenue.
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AI, the “internet of things” and technological innovations such as measuring waste for food businesses have potential, but must be aligned with other practices. Creative solutions should be coupled with behavioural and organisational changes, such as improved inventory management and menu planning. Professionals need formal training on waste, and management strategies require an interdisciplinary approach or soon fade.
We have drawn on an international panel of experts to find quick wins and longer-term changes. Professionals should act by anticipating and reducing potential waste at source; adopting recycling and composting technologies; and developing a circular economy model.
Our research has identified actions in three areas: valuation (hidden costs); management practices (innovation and professionalisation); and social policy.
The first is about identifying the true cost of food. Current prices fail to account for social, environmental, health and economic externalities. Measuring the true cost including waste would help align market prices with social values.
In a recent study, we used french fries to explore the true and hidden costs of waste. We often overlook the full intricate story, from the potatoes’ origins to the journey to our plates and related waste. Farmers, agribusinesses, food services and consumers find it hard to ascertain the cost of wastage, as expenses are externalised and not included in prices.
The second area is tackling management practice, to see what restaurant managers and staff are doing to cut waste. Food services have an increasingly entrepreneurial focus, with growing awareness among chefs. Zero-waste restaurants are innovating but often lack resources and mechanisms to expand collaboration across the supply chain.
Food waste is not a choice but the result of managerial decisions that reflect short-term thinking and a lack of professionalisation. Many organisations fall short because knowledge does not always trigger greater accountability. Waste is often seen as inevitable and even necessary.
Raising awareness and finding solutions require systemic and sustainable innovations, including: formalising waste management systems; incentivising “from waste to worth” practices; investing in food processing tech; and promoting co-ordination along the supply chain. That calls for additional competences and professionalisation at scale.
A final factor is the importance of social policy. Waste cannot be tackled by the sector alone. It requires active involvement of national and regional policymakers in designing effective interventions. While many institutions and governments have developed guidelines, food waste remains huge.
Stronger legislation is needed to incentivise prevention and penalise wastage at every step of the food chain, in the same way as in energy or transportation. New policy to shift social norms should include moving beyond awareness towards education and outreach campaigns, formalising professional training in food waste, and tax and regulatory incentives.
The economic, environmental and social consequences of food waste require urgent action. Joint programmes between academia, research labs, public institutions and private actors should be set up to develop new competencies, move to a circular economy approach, generate innovation, and foster sustainable food practices.
Carlos Martin-Rios, associate professor, Christine Demen-Meier and Clémence Cornuz, EHL Hospitality Business School, Switzerland, and Stefan Gössling, Linneaus University, Sweden, are co-authors of Food Waste Management Innovations in the Foodservice Industry (2018, Waste Management)